Seeking the Eiffel Tower in London
LAST SEPTEMBER I found myself in the bizarre situation of once again being—and I still can’t say it without an unsettling jolt of bewilderment—a student. Months earlier, while in the Cypriot army, I learned that I had received a Chevening scholarship for Cypriots through the British Council. The award entitled me to a fully funded one-year Masters in the U.K. Twelve months, all expenses paid, a kind of unexpected manna from heaven.
I’d been out of school for almost a decade and so it was inevitable for me to initially suffer from a minor identity crisis that comes from the déjà vu feeling of being caught up—albeit in this lifetime—in a Nietzschean cycle of eternal recurrence. It was impossible to not feel that I had regressed in some fundamental way. But phobias and flashbacks aside, I soon found that study in the U.K.—where instructors neither hold hands nor wield whips—was especially well-suited to us older sorts who are referred to, despite the lack of evidence, as ‘mature students.’
I had come to University College of London with prejudiced notions that the educational format would be stuffy and buttoned-up only to find that it was less formal than in the U.S. (i.e. the first-name basis between teachers and students is not one-way). And any lingering ideas I may have still maintained about uptight British education were permanently quashed when the ‘Issues in Modern Culture’ instructor one day said: “For next week, aside from the reading, go out around London and try your hand at a bit of psychogeography. You can do anything you want, but I’d prefer not to have to bail you out of jail.”
Psychogeography emerged as a conceptual term in 1955; its aim was to jolt urbanites out of their humdrum utilitarian routines and into fresh experiential states through radically re-conceiving urban spaces (this might involve something as innocuous as navigating oneself through London with a map of Paris). The notion of psychogeography was bound up with the Situationist International, a movement of Marxist pranksters and theoreticians seeking to instill and invoke revolutionary sensibilities by “creating situations” as they put it. One of the most notorious examples of such a situation (although it took place before the movement had announced itself) involved a man dressing up as a monk and then reading a pamphlet claiming God was dead from the pulpit of the Notre Dame during Easter Mass. Defacing monuments in creative ways was also part of the situationist stockpile.
I wasn’t feeling all that up to defacing any monuments or committing any situationist acts of political subversion (although there was a tempting irony in the thought of it, seeing that the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, which funds all Chevenings, was sponsoring my course and that one of the conditions I had signed as part of my scholarship contract was that I would “not engage in political activities or in any other activities of a public nature likely to affect the British government adversely”). I was however up for some psychogeographic sport. So that Sunday evening, while out with a friend and emboldened by a few pints, I decided to give it a go at the London Bridge Train Station.
The first thing I did was request a one-way train ticket to Tripoli for the following Monday (“There’s no such place” – “No? Are you sure? It’s on the coast in the South East…”). But that didn’t seem to be going anywhere so I then tried posing a simple question to a number of employees in and around the train station: ‘How can I get to the Eiffel Tower?’ This proved far more fruitful. As I had a micro-recorder on hand, I was able to transcribe all the interchanges, which I include below as a record of my psychogeographic edification:
TRANSCRIPTION FROM AN AUDIO RECORDING OF QUESTIONS POSED ON A SUNDAY EVENING IN AND
AROUND THE LONDON BRIDGE TRAIN STATION
STATION NIGHT MAINTENANCE
Q: Excuse me. Do you know by any chance the easiest way to get to—
A: No, I don’t know.
Q: —to get to the Eiffel Tower?
A: No, I don’t know, sir.
Q: The Eiffel Tower… I hear there’s nice views of London—
A: I don’t know. Sorry.
Q: Do you know who would know how I can get to the Eiffel Tower? Do you know if it’s nearby here or how far away it is?
A: Ask [inaudible]. He’ll know. He has the book. He knows everything.
STATION COFFEE BOOTH EMPLOYEE
Q: Hello, do you know how I can get to the Eiffel Tower? I hear there’s good views of London from the top.
A: Um, which place? [nervous giggle] Which place? What best views of London?
Q: The Eiffel.
A: What views?
Q: From the top. From the top of the tower.
A: Tower Bridge?
Q: No. Eiffel.
A: No idea.
Q: You know how far it is?
A: No. I mean, I must have heard of it, but I don’t know where it is.
Q: Or maybe that’s not the one. I think it… or was it the Tower of Pisa?
A: I have no idea. I really have no idea.
Q: All right. Okay. I’ll ask somebody else I guess. Great, thanks… But you think it’s nearby?
A: I think it’s nearby here, but I’m not sure how to get there. That’s why. Sorry about that.
Q: Okay, great. Thanks.
CASHIER IN STATION CONVENIENCE STORE
Q: Do you know by any chance how to get to the Eiffel Tower from here?
A: The Eiffel Tower?
Q: Yeah, I hear there’s good views of London from the top.
A: It’s not Eiffel tower here.
Q: There’s no Eiffel? Really! It’s not in London? We’ve been looking for it all day. They gave us the wrong directions… So where is it?
Q: They said there’s a tower here, with good views.
A: Alton Tower.
Q: Oh, Alton. So it’s not Eiffel or Pisa…
A: Two pounds ten please.
Q: So is there a bus that goes from here?
A: Certainly no idea. You need to call—
Q: Does the underground?
A: You need to call the TFL.
Q: TFL? What’s that?
A: Transport for London.
Q: And they can get us there?
A: Yeah, yeah…
Q: To the Eiffel tower? Okay, great. Thanks.
CASHIER IN CONVENIENCE STORE OUTSIDE TRAIN STATION
Q: Do you know by any chance how to get to the Tower of Pisa from here? No? You don’t?
A: I’m new.
Q: It’s an old tower, I think. They’re saying it may fall soon.
A: It’s my third day.
Q: Oh, okay. Great, thanks, thank you.
RECEPTIONIST IN COMPANY BUILDING
Q: Sorry, we’ve been looking for the Eiffel tower all day and kind of thought it was along the river. We’ve walked from Tower Bridge and we were wondering if it was near—
A: I have no idea.
Q: The Eiffel Tower. It’s quite tall. You should be able to see it really.
A: Maybe if you go that way [motions to the right] it’s on the right hand side.
Q: Okay. The Eiffel Tower might be on the water.
A: [with growing confidence] Yes. Because I’m first time here on this side. That’s why I don’t know this area.
Q: Ah, so the Eiffel Tower is on the other side! We’ve been on the wrong side of the river, that’s why… We’ve been asking so many people that don’t know. Okay. Great. We’ll cross the river then.
A: Yes. I think so. If you cross the river, you know. If you go via the bridge, yes, you know, maybe it’s on the other side.
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